Album review: Erykah Badu, 'New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh'

old school: Erykah Badu gives a nod to Notorious B.I.G. and blaxploitation.
old school: Erykah Badu gives a nod to Notorious B.I.G. and blaxploitation.
By Chris Richards
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Put that popcorn away. "New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh" might sound like some C-grade mummy movie starring Brendan Fraser, but it's actually the beguiling new album from Erykah Badu.

Second thought, keep the popcorn. These songs are as cinematic as anything the soul eccentric has ever released -- including 2008's evocative precursor "New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War." But where that album bristled with political paranoia, Badu's new disc explores something much scarier: falling in love.

Or more specifically, falling in love for the umpteenth time and the queasy uncertainty that comes with it. Fans know all about Badu's romantic loop-de-loops via 13 years of autobiographical songcraft that first emerged during the '90s neo-soul gold rush. Her 1997 debut "Baduizm" stands just a few notches below the masterpiece status of "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" and D'Angelo's "Voodoo."

More than a decade later, an interesting post-neo-soul template is beginning to take shape -- dreamy, elliptical records where potent melodies are gingerly tucked into deceptively complex arrangements. It's a trick that Maxwell pulled in July with his sublime comeback disc "BLACKsummers'night" and Badu is up to something similar here, unspooling her fever-dream funk in strange new codes.

She tries to push us away with "Fall in Love (Your Funeral)," waving a cautionary finger, "You don't wanna fall in love with me." Behind her is what sounds like an Alicia Keys song flipped inside out, with keyboards squeaking where you'd expect them to chime. For the refrain, Badu recycles a couplet from the late Notorious B.I.G.'s "Warning": "There's gonna be some slow singing and flower-bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing." And on and on she goes, tip-toeing over the beat for six funky minutes.

Her B.I.G. worship continues with "Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)," an interpolation of Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Get Money," the 1995 chart-topper from Biggie's then-young acolytes. Badu graces this version in a rubbery voice, offering multi-tracked harmonies that feel pliant and light. It has the charm of a spring day but still feels pleasantly amiss -- like a freakish midwinter spike in temperature.

And while Badu's voice has a perennial warmth, "Gone Baby Don't Be Long" is the coolest tune in the bunch. Her syllables are flash-fried in psychedelic vocal effects, the drums are a rickety metallic gallop, and the bass lurks so low, it's practically imperceptible. This is Badu at her retro-futuristic best, summoning blaxploitation and science fiction in the same breath.

There's something unhurried and aloof about "Return of the Ankh," but 39-year-old Badu still sings with a magnetism that compels us to follow her to and fro. Old-school fans vexed by such meandering will likely flock to the album's lead single, "Window Seat." It's vintage Badu: gentle melodies, a twinkling harp, rim-shots click-clacking at an easy, Sunday morning tempo.

Don't mistake it for a moment of clarity. Badu seems to have found her true self deep in the fog.

Recommended tracks:

"Gone Baby, Don't Be Long," "Umm Hmm," "Fall in Love (Your Funeral)," "Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)"

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